A play about gay men on Grindr goes virtual during COVID-19

‘Borders,’ Nimrod Danishman’s production about an Israeli-Lebanese couple, is adapted for the phone app Telegram this week

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Morad Hassan (left) and Yoel Rozenkier play two men meeting on a dating app in 'Borders,' a play that went virtual during the coronavirus (Courtesy Nimrod Danishman)
Morad Hassan (left) and Yoel Rozenkier play two men meeting on a dating app in 'Borders,' a play that went virtual during the coronavirus (Courtesy Nimrod Danishman)

When COVID-19 prevented playwright Nimrod Danishman from performing his play onstage, he moved it to a phone app.

Audience members download the Telegram app — a messaging platform similar to WhatsApp that allows groups of several hundred on each chat — and watch a love story unfold as George and Boaz meet and conduct a love affair over the phone via voice messages, photos and videos.

The play, “Borders,” is about two gay men, Boaz (Yoel Rozenkier), an Israeli, and George (Morad Hassan), who is Lebanese, who meet on Grindr, a social networking app for the LGBTQ community.

Onstage, the play tells a story that takes place over the course of three months.

On Telegram, it takes place over three days.

Danishman adapted the play to the Telegram app with the onset of COVID-19, making the production truly virtual.

On Telegram, viewers watch and hear the messages, voice messages, videos and photos fly back and forth between George and Boaz, but can’t respond.

“It puts the emphasis on a live experience, and you feel like you’re with others in this experience,” said Danishman. “You’re watching it together.”

This week, “Borders” is being performed as part of “Theatre of Uncertainty 2020,” an international gathering of theater people taking place October 14-15 online, hosted by Israeli theater organization EVE. The play began its three-day run on Tuesday, and can be joined by audience members at any time.

“I had to figure out how to do it virtually,” said Danishman. “I think it offers something that’s missing now when you just watch recordings of plays.”

The play is funny, poignant and real, as George is first hesitant and Boaz more forward in the initial stages of meeting.

“When we first rehearsed, we did it in our living rooms. We used to cook dinner together,” said Morad Hassan, a Palestinian actor who has performed widely on stage and screen.

While Hassan comes from an open-minded Muslim family, playing a gay guy from a conservative background felt familiar.

He didn’t expect much feedback from the production, initially thinking of it as a student play with a very limited run.

He was pleasantly surprised when it developed a following. When the coronavirus first emerged, Hassan was rehearsing for his first repertory production at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater, which was canceled.

At that point, Hassan went home to his parents’ house up north, and helped out in the family’s bakery, “cutting knafeh,” he said.

The virtual performance in “Borders,” however, has been a godsend, albeit a tension-filled one.

“It’s the longest production I’ve ever been in,” said Hassan. “I”ll be in stress for the entire three days, until the last video is sent.”

Yoel Rozenkier, who is a familiar face from TV show “Kibbutznikim,” is feeling remarkably calm about the virtual performance.

On hiatus from acting due to the coronavirus, and with his plans to live in Paris on hold, Rozenkier is back at his parents’ kibbutz up north, not far from Lebanon, and is busy building decks and pergolas when he’s not raising bees.

“It’s a good lesson to return to the basics and to work with my hands,” said Rozenkier. “It’s good for me.”

Playwright Nimrod Danishman who moved his play, ‘Borders’ to a Telegram app chat on the phone during the coronavirus (Courtesy Nimrod Danishman)

The play was Danishman’s final student project at Kibbutzim College School of Performing Arts, and as he likes to say, a lot of unexpected things happened.

After being acted by Hassan and Rozenkier onstage, it was produced Off-Broadway and in Washington, DC, and was nominated for several local awards.

Audiences loved the love story between two men, and the fact that they’re from enemy states. The language also felt familiar, with a screen above the stage showing the text messages being sent back and forth.

“It hit some kind of nerve,” said Danishman. “There’s something relating to pop culture in this love story between two guys, so that pulls people.”

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